A few years ago, my spouse, Kip, and I signed up for a retreat in Estes Park, Colorado led by Thich Nhat Hanh. I have long admired this Vietnamese Buddhist master who, with his quiet, humble demeanor, teaches that mindfulness and peace can be cultivated in every moment and every act.
We arrived in the Denver airport and boarded the chartered bus to the YMCA of the Rockies. Once there, we settled into our room, then headed for the opening gathering, joining a thousand others who had traveled from far and wide. Finding a place on the floor of the large convocation hall, we sat, waiting expectantly for Thich Nhat Hanh to appear and give the opening talk.
After awhile, one of the brown-robed monks with shaven head approached the microphone and began reading a letter from Thay—as Thich Nhat Hanh is affectionately called. It was a beautiful, loving letter. But I was confused. Why was he communicating with us in writing rather than just addressing us in person? Was this customary in Buddhist retreats?
As the monk continued reading, it sank in. Thich Nhat Hanh would not be joining us. He was hospitalized in Boston, receiving treatment for a lung infection. His community—the nuns and monks from France and their sister monasteries in New York and California—would lead the retreat.
Even though I was concerned for Thay’s wellbeing, this was an immense disappointment. I’d been looking forward to this retreat for months. But I came to a reluctant acceptance. Perhaps this was the retreat’s first teaching: to release my attachment to something I had desired so much.
The nuns and monks did a beautiful job. They gave insightful and moving Dharma talks, and although they surely must have felt trepidation about having to fill Thay’s shoes, their sincerity, the depth of their presence, and the authenticity of their teaching was an inspiration. Over the course of our days together we coalesced into a supportive community, sharing our meals in silence, joining in our small group conversations, accepting the situation and one another with grace and humor. In the absence of the revered master, the community discovered its strength.
The experience made us all more aware of how we so often project onto a single leader the capacities that lie within each of us. Had we really come to see a Buddhist super star? Or had we gathered to become a community—practicing mindfulness, compassion and peace?
As though to express the collective shift we’d undergone, at our joyous closing celebration a spontaneous dance erupted as Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” played over the sound system. (“If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”) The energy in the room was extraordinary. Something powerful had been unleashed during that retreat, not despite Thay’s absence, but because of it.
The event became known as the miracle of the Rockies, a story of collective awakening when the master became embodied in the Sangha. The teaching was no longer the purview of one individual; it had become the gift of and to the collective.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the retreat had been billed: One Buddha Is Not Enough.
One of the most meaningful moments for me personally was when I was initiated into the Five Mindfulness Trainings—practices that give concrete expression to the Buddha’s teachings about right understanding and true love.
Sister Pine, the nun who facilitated our small group, assigned Dharma names to everyone in her group who had adopted the trainings. The morning she passed out the certificates she gestured me aside to quietly whisper something to me. She told me that the Dharma name she had heard for me was Living Christ of the Heart, but she didn’t know if I would be able to use it publicly, so on my certificate she wrote Joyful Gift of the Heart. When she told me, she emphasized the word Living, repeating it emphatically to convey to me that the name she’d heard didn’t refer to something or someone in the past, but to a present, living reality.
I have held the Dharma name at arms length. There’s so much baggage associated with the term “Christ.” It can so easily be misconstrued—becoming a mine field for the ego. After all, how many mentally unstable people have claimed themselves to be the Christ, sometimes with catastrophic consequences?
And therein lies the problem: people believing themselves to be the Christ, as though there can only be one. In fact, the belief in one’s specialness—that one is somehow set apart from the rest of humanity—is an indication that the mind is still operating from an ego perspective, not a Christ perspective.
As I understand it at this point in my life, Christ isn’t a person but a state of being, a state of dwelling in the reality of one’s oneness with the All. Yes, it is a state of being Jesus inhabited, and one he wanted others to experience as well.
We have now reached a point where our collective survival may well depend on all of us awakening to our Christ nature, understanding that it the fullest expression of what it is to be human.
This, I believe, is Christianity’s new calling, metamorphosing into a religion that helps awaken the Christ capacity in us all, just as Thay wished to awaken the Buddha capacity in those of us who gathered on retreat.
While I was at the retreat that summer I bought a watch designed by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the center is the word “it’s” in Thay’s calligraphy, and in the four quadrants is written the word “now.” I’m sure he intended it to be a constant reminder to be in the moment, present to the eternal now.
And yet, against the backdrop of my experience at the retreat I hear it also as a proclamation that we all have the capacity to be Buddhas, that we are all the Christ we’ve been waiting for. The time for us to awaken to that truth is now.